Tom Arthur: "Good to Great" not so great

The book hasn’t aged well amidst The Great Recession. What of the church plants built in its image?

I’m about a decade behind the trends.  I only recently read the 2001 “classic” leadership book by Jim Collins, “ Good to Great.” I’d heard so much about this book that I felt it was important to read just to be able to speak the language of those who lead me. I asked around my own church and found that our leadership team also got swept up in “Good to Great” mania of ‘01.  They talked about their “hedgehog” ministry. They discussed “Level 5 Leadership” and how it applied to our church. Turning to it I could see why. I was quickly swept up in its power, especially its research. This gave the book a kind of air of scientific impenetrability. 

But reading Collins for the first time in the context of the Great Recession changed how I read it. Ten years out, I could see cracks in the research. When Collin’s research team praises companies that have since gone under, the most egregious being Circuit City, I begin to ask questions about some of the other claims made in the book. It’s not that there aren’t good things in it -- I appreciated the focus on humility of Level 5 leaders -- but the way these kinds of concepts get translated into the church often misses that very same humility. For example, how can we build churches that don’t just sustain a fifteen year good-to-great transition but last as long as the two millennia of the Christian Church itself?

Recently I read in Time about Haiti’s deteriorating gingerbread houses, built during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and how despite their outer decay they withstood the massive earthquake that rocked the country and flattened so many other structures.  They withstood the devastation because they were built with a hard-earned communal wisdom about how to withstand hurricanes and last for the long-haul.  Architects and builders are now looking to the still-standing “decaying” houses of the past to rebuild for Haiti’s future.  They may be decaying, but they’re at least still standing, which is more than can be said for the short-sighted concrete structures that lay in ruins.

All this makes me feel a little bit better about being the second pastor of a church-plant of the UnitedMethodistChurch, a denomination that is certainly decaying over time.  There are several other newer, bigger and flashier churches standing proud and tall around our little church-plant. But what will they look like when all hell breaks loose and the next spiritual earthquake hits our neighborhood and there isn’t any extended communal wisdom and connection that lasts longer than the fifteen years of a good-to-great transition?  As Ed Stetzer has recently written, the old decaying bones of this denomination do still have life. 

None of this is to say that church plants must look exactly like the UMC churches planted in the late 1800s and early 1900s hey-day of American Methodism.  The new construction in Haiti doesn’t have to look just like the gingerbread houses of yesteryear.  Colors might be different.  Individual accents might change.  Decorative features can shift with time.  But those who plan the inner structure of new buildings have a lot to learn from the inner structure of these old long-standing buildings.  So too do the church-planters of today have something to learn from “decaying” denominations like mine.

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.